'From Afar' ('Desde alla'): Venice Review

DESDE ALLA Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

DESDE ALLA Still - H 2015

Quiet, complex and riveting.

Alfredo Castro plays a closed-off middle-aged gay man who cruises the Caracas streets for young rough trade in Lorenzo Vigas' startling debut.

Absent fathers cast a long shadow in which an unexpected connection deepens in From Afar, which marks an assured first feature from Venezuelan writer-director Lorenzo Vigas. Deliberately detached in its observational style, yet as probing, subtle and affecting as any psychological drama could wish to be, this is an elliptical film that trusts its audience enough to peel away exposition and unnecessary dialogue, uncovering rich layers of ambiguity. The intimate chamber piece nonetheless has a stinging clarity that's amplified in very fine performances from Chilean veteran Alfredo Castro (No, The Club) and promising newcomer Luis Silva.

The unknown Vigas arrives in the main competition in Venice supported by significant names from the Latin American film industry on his producing team. Guillermo Arriaga, who also collaborated on the story, helped put Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on the map with his screenplays for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, while Michel Franco's stark dramas, After Lucia and Chronic, have earned him admiration at Cannes in recent editions. Breakout star Edgar Ramirez (Carlos) and third-generation filmmaker Gabriel Ripstein are executive producers.

Vigas shares some of Franco's formal austerity, for instance in the exclusion of non-diegetic music. But the director's voice here is a distinctive one, and the impact of this tragic love story eschews the visceral brutality of Franco's films for something more enigmatic.

Castro plays single, middle-aged Armando, whose behavior on the streets in poor neighborhoods of Caracas could less accurately be called cruising than watching. He trains his calm, cat-like gaze on tough young men, acting with decisiveness when he sees an attractive candidate, without even first ascertaining whether the youth might welcome his advances. In the arresting opening scenes Armando approaches a young guy (Jeralt Jimenez) at a bus stop, making his physical presence felt as he follows him onto the bus and then flashes a wad of cash to lure him home. The sex is a terse exchange with zero physical contact.

We learn that Armando makes dentures for a living in a small workshop, and via a handful of loaded words spoken with his sister (Catherina Cardoza) regarding their estranged father's return to the area, we can guess their damaged history.

When Armando first approaches the surly Elder (Silva) for sex, he gets a hostile response and an earful of anti-gay abuse. But the macho youth eventually follows him home, only to assault and rob him. Undeterred by his injuries or losses, Armando starts stalking Elder on the street, even finding out where he lives in a grungy low-income housing project. The initial danger of their sex-free encounters shifts into more unsettling and increasingly obscure territory that at times recalls the dynamics of a Harold Pinter play.

After Elder is severely beaten by fellow thugs, Armando takes him into his home to care for him. But each step toward mutual respect and friendship is followed by another reason for the older man to regret his kindness, prompting Armando to harm himself in a symbolic display of his superior strength. Having crossed the line, Elder finds himself shut out and having to earn back Armando's trust.

The infinitesimal degrees by which Vigas reveals the shift in Elder make this a mesmerizing story, particularly when the youth starts opening up while the older man remains secretive. Without sentimentality or inauthentic romantic conventions, a nuanced portrait emerges of a rough-hewn kid who has never known what it is to be cared for; the film provides a transfixing account of how those unfamiliar sensations can nourish fluidity of affection, desire and sexuality.

From Afar smartly avoids explicit psychological analysis of either of its principal characters, and yet there's layer upon layer of complexity to them both.

This is especially remarkable in the case of the ghostly Armando, given the unfaltering restraint of Castro's wonderful performance, which imbues the character with an almost unnerving stillness, a watchfulness quietly charged full of hurt and anger that goes way back and likely renders him beyond repair. Silva, a 21-year-old making his screen debut, is equally compelling. Elder is edgy and impulsive, revealing a well-hidden vulnerability only gradually as he starts seeking Armando's approval. The way he sheds his inhibitions and relaxes into an unfamiliar sense of security makes what follows in the film's conclusion quite shattering.

In a small but significant role, Jerico Montilla makes an impression as Elder's mother. She's sharp enough to see there's something unspoken going on when her son brings the older man as a friend to a birthday party, but she's too much a product of a homophobic society to be accepting. The same goes for the cold-shouldering of Elder by his street friends. However, this is neither a coming-out film nor a commentary on anti-gay discrimination. Rather, it's a study of one particular relationship with its own indefinable, constantly changing rules.

Vigas and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (who shoots Pablo Larrain's films) capture the grit and poverty of the Caracas settings without overstatement, but those aspects register so strongly that a brief interlude by the sea brings an invigorating jolt, creating an airy space in which Armando and Elder can inch closer to communication. Picking up every small signal of body language, Armstrong frequently shoots his subjects from behind or in searching closeups that isolate them within their busy surroundings.

Both Armando and Elder are to some extent unknowable characters, but this is a work of bracing maturity and jagged sensuality; its gaze, simultaneously tender and harsh, is never judgmental. By the time it's over we've come to know and care about both men.

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva, Jerico Montilla, Catherina Cardozo, Marcos Moreno, Jorge Luis Bosque, Jeralt Jimenez, Felipe Massiani, Auffer Camacho, Ivan Pena, Greymer Acosta, Joretsis Ibarra
Production companies: Factor RH, Malandro Films, in association with Lucia Films
Director-screenwriter: Lorenzo Vigas
Story: Guillermo Arriaga, Lorenzo Vigas
Producers: Rodolfo Cova, Guillermo Arriaga, Michel Franco, Lorenzo Vigas
Executive producers: Edgar Ramirez, Gabriel Ripstein
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Matias Tikas
Costume designer: Marisela Marin
Editor: Isabella Monteiro de Castro
Casting: Beto Benitez
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

No rating, 94 minutes.